Environmental Justice & the Food System


The FAIM Project uses an environmental justice lens to examine the factors affecting food access and food security in Michigan. This means that we recognize that the food system is characterized by widespread social, economic, political and environmental inequities [i, ii], and that we situate what is happening in Michigan within the larger food system in this country, as well as within a broader social and political context. 


Brief Overview of Environmental Justice

Environmental justice has been defined in multiple ways. At its core Environmental Justice (EJ) is the idea that all people, regardless of race, class, or gender should share in the benefits of a healthy environment and share the burdens environmental degradation. This means that all people should be provided equal protection and enforcement of environmental rules and regulations, and furthermore they should have opportunity to engage meaningfully in the creation of these laws.

The EJ movement has deep roots in the work of indigenous peoples, people of color and allied white activists fighting against environmental racism (the disproportionate burden of environmental degradation faced by communities of color) [iii, iv]. While the modern EJ movement is often described as emerging from the 1982 Warren County protests against the siting of a toxic landfill for PCB’s in a largely poor, African American county in North Carolina, it is important to note that the US civil rights movement made explicit connections between racism and the environment via efforts to improve sanitation workers’ rights, ending the Vietnam War, eliminating racially-based housing and education discrimination and more.

A pivotal moment in the EJ movement came in 1987 when the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published Toxic Waste and Race in the United States — the first national study to correlate the placement of waste facilities to racial demographics [v]. The 1990’s saw a flurry of organizing in academic, activist and government spaces, from Robert Bullard’s publication of Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and the Environment [vi] which highlighted environmental justice struggles of the south, to the 1st National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit where hundreds gathered to form to share information, stories and strategies for justice, to the University of Michigan’s Symposium on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards from which a group of activist-academics pushed the EPA to formally address issues of environmental justice, to the founding of multiple EJ organizations across the country. West Harlem Action (WeAct), the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice were all founded during this time [vii].

Civil rights leader Rev B. Chavis leads rally against toxic PCB landfill near poor, Black community in Warren County, NC. (source: AP)

Image from the 1st National People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference    (copyright B Bullard)

The early efforts of the EJ movement to address disproportionate sitings of toxic facilities in low-income communities of color set the stage for the next 20 years of work. The EJ movement has embraced multiple social justice and environmental concerns impacting low-income communities and communities of color including, but not limited to:

–    the effects of climate change on communities across the world;

–    the need for access to safe, consistent transportation;

–    the need for access to affordable, sustainable sources of energy;

–    building sustainable and self-determined communities through environmental and economic justice;

–    ending the injustices that cause hunger on national and global scales.


Environmental Justice to Food Justice

If Environmental Justice is the idea that all people should have access to a safe, healthy, sustainable environment, then it follows then that everyone, regardless of race, socio-economic background, gender, or age should have access to healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food. The concept of food justice describes the work of activists and academics who work across the food system advocating for food access, security, and sovereignty. Our work approaches food access from this shared perspective.

To that end we examine the interwoven systems that are both grounded in, and serve to perpetuate, racial discrimination and economic exploitation within the conventional food system, and what this means for Michigan’s food system in particular. To learn more about food justice and related terms check out the informational art from the Lexicon of Food

Image source: Lexicon of Food

Thinking About Justice in the Food System

The environmental justice movement advocates for three kinds of justice pertinent to the study of food systems: distributive, procedural, and process justice [viii, ix]. Considering these different types of justice may lead researchers to ask any number of questions. Below are a few examples of how distributive, procedural, and process justice might influence the questions we ask while examining the food system.

Distributive justice addresses the inequitable spatial distribution of environmental benefits and burdens and suggests that all people deserve to share in the burdens and amenities of our environment. In a food systems study, distributive justice suggests one could explore:

–  What are the current economic and social systems that hinder or support food access? For instance, are there affordable, reliable transportation systems in place that support food access? Or what effect would people earning a living wage have on rates of food security?

Procedural justice addresses the inequitable application of rules and laws regarding the care of our environment and suggests that all people deserve to be protected by local, state and federal rules governing the care of our environment and the subsequent impacts on human welfare. A food systems study centering procedural justice might consider: 

–  In what ways have programs and policies regarding land ownership supported or hindered different communities access to land? In particular, what barriers have farmers of color, women farmers, and small farmers faced regarding land ownership and tenure?

–  How do federal policies impact peoples’ ability to acquire adequate emergency food assistance?

Process justice addresses the lack of opportunities for people to engage in participatory decision making about their environment and includes the idea that meaningful engagement requires appropriate scientific information and access to decision makers. In a food system study focusing on process justice one might question:

–  Historically, who has been (un)able to engage in the decision-making processes that have shaped the food system? What have been the implications of these policy-decisions across the food system?


[i] Ayazi & Elsheikh (2016). The U.S. Farm Bill: Corporate power and structural racialization in the United
States food system. Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. Link: https://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/global-justice/glocal-food-systems/farm-bill-report-corporate-power-and-structural-racialization-us-food-system

[ii] Alkon, AH & Agyeman, J (Eds.) (2011) Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability. MIT press. Link. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/cultivating-food-justice

[iii] Taylor, DE (2009) The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change. Duke University Press. Link: https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-rise-of-the-american-conservation-movement

[iv] Pellow, DN (2017) What is critical environmental justice? John Wiley & Sons. Link: https://www.wiley.com/en-us/What+is+Critical+Environmental+Justice%3F-p-9780745679372

[v] United Church of Christ. Commission for Racial Justice (1987) Toxic wastes and race in the United States: A national report on the racial and socio-economic characteristics of communities with hazardous waste sites. Link: http://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries_environmental-racism

[vi] Bullard, R D (2008) Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Westview Press. Link: http://drrobertbullard.com/books/

[vii] US Environmental Protection Agency (2017, June 2). Environmental Justice Timeline Link: https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/environmental-justice-timeline

[viii] Bullard, R. (2001) Environmental Justice in the 21st Century: Race Still Matters. Phylon, 49(3,4) Link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/43681929.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Afeb49405b78625002bee0e725be63a7e

[ix] Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, University of Washington (Retrieved 2018) Environmental Justice Link: http://deohs.washington.edu/environmental-justice